Why can’t they just be friends? Girls have a hard time sustaining supportive relationships with each other on screen. Things go well for a while. But when conflict arises, everything goes all “Single White Female” or “Heavenly Creatures” on them.
Such is the case in “Breathe” by Mélanie Laurent, best known to audiences in America as the actress who played the ferocious anti-Nazi movie theater owner in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Some of Tarantino’s taste for brutish resolutions seems to have slipped into her otherwise nuanced, sensitive, and unflinching adaptation of this YA novel by French author Anne-Sophie Brasme.
Charlie (a Raphaelesque Joséphine Japy) first appears as a pair of bare feet slipping wearily over the side of a bed. She slips on jeans and sneakers as her parents argue off-screen. She eats breakfast, seemingly indifferent to her mother’s tears and her father’s fuming.
It’s a routine. Once at school, though, she opens up, smiling and laughing with friends in a quick-cut, silent montage that subtly details the other half of her double life, none of which touches her essential sadness.
When the new student Sarah (a mercurial and vivid Lou de Laâge) arrives, the whole school livens up. But it’s Charlie she’s interested in. Charlie delights in her new friend’s anarchism: Sarah smokes, tells shocking stories, and does shocking things. She acts out the impulses that Charlie represses, that send her at times into gasping asthmatic fits.
Visiting Charlie at her home for the first time, Sarah listens on another phone as Charlie’s mother demeans herself, begging the now absent father to return. Then, without identifying herself, Sarah suggests that Charlie’s dad get lost, and hangs up. Charlie’s mother is mortified, but not totally displeased, and Charlie is shocked and giddy with embarrassment and exhilaration.
Will Sarah snap Charlie out of her passivity and help her assert herself? But Sarah has family issues of her own. A shared family camping trip sparks inexplicable resentments and cruelties, and Sarah shows a dark side and a mean streak. These things happen. Can they be resolved — or will Laurent smother this empowering friendship before it can fully breathe?
★ ★ ★
Directed by Mélanie Laurent. Written by Laurent and Julien Lambroschini, based on the novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme. Starring Joséphine Japy, Lou de Laâge, Carole Franck, Isabelle Carré. At Museum of Fine Arts. In French, with subtitles. 91 minutes. Unrated (drinking, smoking, sexual situations, trust issues).
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.